Former District Attorney Seth Williams said a holistic approach that uses data and looks at root causes can solve the city’s rampant gun violence.
Williams was a featured guest in a Zoom call hosted by University of Penn’s Men of Color on Thursday, an effort organizers said was planned to gauge solutions to reduce Philadelphia’s record gun violence. Last year, the city recorded 499 shootings, the highest since 1990. At deadline, the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) reported 104 homicides, a 32% increase from the same time in 2020.
“We have to recognize if we are going to address the gun violence, we have to treat it holistically. We can’t just arrest our way out of crime. We can’t perceive gun violence as a law enforcement problem only. We need to treat it as a public health crisis,” Williams said. “What’s important for us to recognize is if we were to delve and dive deep into the statistics and actually look at who’s being shot, recognizing and finding out why they’re being shot, then we can address how to prevent it.”
Williams continued that data shows that more than 80% of African-American men “between the ages of 16 roughly and roughly 27,” are either most likely to be shot or are most likely to do the shooting. Such intelligence, he said, can drive solutions as it did when he and former Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey worked together on the same issue.
“I used community-based prosecution as a method of the district attorney’s office, working in collaboration with the police and community groups and clergy. That allowed me, in working with Commissioner Ramsey … to use the data to do crime-mapping to see where the crimes are, where the gun violence is. That allowed us to move to a solution where we (used) focused deterrence,” Williams said.
“We had the lowest rates of gun violence around 2011, it went down 2012, down 2013, down 2014, began to plateau. Now, it’s gone back up. We have to see what changed. Community based prosecution was ended by the current administration. There appears to be no real working relationship between and police, prosecutors and community as it had been. That’s a significant change.”
Williams also cited what he described as micro-level causes, details that he said might not be immediately realized by outsiders. An incident as someone stepping on another’s shoe, or an insult on social media could mean someone’s death.
“People think random people are being shot, that’s not the reality of the statistics. The majority of the people are people that too easily have access to handguns. The majority of gun violence is related to group violence but the initiating factor is generally some form of disrespect, an argument,” Williams said.
“In our circumstance in Philadelphia, young Black and brown men shooting, specifically, other young Black and brown men that they feel disrespected by. So, the number one is an argument caused by some perceived disrespect. The micro level — man on man — it comes down to disrespect. I came to learn that both as a professor, as D.A., as a kid who rode SEPTA, and as an inmate in federal prison. The majority of arguments have nothing to do with what you think. It’s over somebody turning the channel on the TV, somebody stepped on somebody’s (shoes), somebody fouled somebody too hard on the basketball court, somebody said something about somebody’s family member. We need to recognize, if we are going to talk about solutions, we have to understand the whys. If we don’t understand the why we can’t affect the solution.”
Responding to the idea that gun violence is sometimes rooted in disrespect, Nina Ahmad, former Philadelphia deputy mayor for public engagement and the 2020 Democratic nominee for state auditor general, commented that a deeper root cause exists.
“While there needs to be a multi-pronged approach, it is also critical to acknowledge that the power structure does not value Black and brown lives,” she said. “That is deeply felt by our young people who see their elders being disrespected and then decide they have to use violence to get the respect.”
Williams and other community organizers on the conference called for increased mental health access and skills training in community spaces, such as rec centers.
“About eight out of ten men I lived with in prison had some significant mental health problem. The number one provider of mental health treatment in the United states is the Los Angeles County prison system. Number two is the New York City prison system. Number three is the Cook County prison system,” said Williams.
“It’s unacceptable. If you ask about solutions, we need to have early identification, early intervention and then community based therapeutic treatment for mental health issues. We need to help people get the treatment they need — third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth grade as opposed to waiting for them to act out, get prosecuted, (and) get sentenced to prison where they are given the lowest level quality of mental health treatment. We really have to talk with young men about ‘it’s okay to talk about how you feel.’ We need people in the community, in addition to governmental methods and solutions. It behooves all of us … to do all that we can every day to be mentors. That could be coaching. It could mean being a volunteer. It means just talking to the brother … who is waiting on the 61. ”
Darin Toliver, associate director of University of Penn’s African-American Resource Center (AARC), agreed, encouraging more community input on healing spaces.
“A practice I found very beneficial in the Penn community is the concept of healing spaces, healing circles,” he said. “We need to do that more. It gives them the opportunity to be able to express how they feel without being judged, without having someone go from zero to 100.”